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Edible landscapes: rediscovering plants through gardening, foraging

John Forti said lawns should be diverse landscapes with a variety of plants.

To many Americans, the idea of foraging for food may seem like an ancient concept, but as one expert on gardening can attest, foraging and gardening provides numerous benefits for mental and physical health, and it’s helping to start a new culinary movement.

John Forti is a lecturer, garden historian, ethnobotanist and writer and the executive director of Bedrock Gardens in New Hampshire. He joined “Take Care” to talk about edible landscapes and how gardening can make a big difference for individuals and the society they live in.

Edible landscapes, as Forti describes, are what the name implies -- landscapes full of plants that can be consumed and used for a variety of purposes. Forti said that we all live in a habitat, and we can enrich our habitat in the things we plant. And many plants can be used for different purposes, not just eating.

Forti encourages people to explore the landscapes around them while also visiting local farmers markets and interacting with people who grow the plants we eat.

“So many of the things we buy from garden centers or our farmers market have multiple uses that we can consider, but instead of buying a sterile, hybrid clone, we can buy plants that are actually fruiting and nutting and seeding in ways that benefit the larger environment,” he said.

Interacting in this way with the plants we use brings more attention to where they’re growing and how they should be best taken care of, which is what we’re seeing in the current local food trend.

“If we are going to share in eating these plants, it really helps us to consider the quality of the air and the soil and the water where we live,” he said. “We reconsider the importance of the environment where we live because we’re now able to feed ourselves from our local environment.” 

Though the idea of foraging for food may seem like a “hipster trend” for some, Forti said that many people have grown up doing it, whether it’s picking blackberries in the back lawn or venturing into the woods to pick apples from nearby trees.

"Local agriculture means we've taken back control from a system that, really, has almost disallowed organic to come into a marketplace or that ships things in ways that just don't suit."

For those unsure of how to forage, Forti said remember those beginnings and the foods you can recognize.

“Start with the plants you already know,” he said. “Don’t try to go out mushrooming for the first time you want to go foraging because there are layers of complexity. But, if you start with the plant you already know, there are lots of wild things to forage.”

Foraging can help us learn more about the plants we find as well and help dispel a fear of nature many people carry. While there are certainly poisonous plants out there, Forti said if you stick to plants you recognize, it can be a fun, enjoyable experience that’s healthy for you, too.

“Start with the things that are comfortable, that are familiar because a strawberry is a strawberry is a strawberry, and those are things we can take some comfort in harvesting,” he said.

And you don’t have to go out into the woods, either. Forti said you can create your own edible landscape by simply planting foods like raspberries or strawberries right in your lawn. In fact, a garden cultivated in a lawn can be far healthier than the pristine, uniform and manicured lawns that tend to be the norm.

“It’s convenient to mow it all down and have huge, wide open swaths,” he said. “What we’ve come to realize in recent decades is that over 70% of the agricultural chemicals that were in use in the course of our lifetime and our parents’ lifetime have been quietly disappeared from the market because of toxicity issues, and our lawns are a major contributor to that.”

Forti said lawns are best when they’re diverse landscapes full of many different types of plants. Even if you don’t have a lot of space in your lawn, some simple bushes or patches on the edge can make a big difference in the overall health and visual appeal of a lawn.

Gardening and foraging in these ways is good for physical health, Forti said. Most foods in the commercial stream have been shipped thousands of miles before reaching the supermarket, which means that they were harvested long before they were ripe. But, by growing plants ourselves that we grow to full ripeness or by finding plants that have ripened, we can reap far more nutritional value from the foods we eat.

The nutritional difference is clear in the taste, too, and gardening can inspire a pride in the food we eat.

“Every cup of tea that we make from our garden, every piece of herb that we put into a cookpot … they all help us remember how to work with the plants in our landscape and really how to have fun with the process of being a garden again,” he said.

Many communities are seeing the difference and are experiencing agricultural renaissances with young people starting farms. Forti said this is likely because younger people have become disillusioned with the food manufacturing system as it exists today.

“The bigger the mainstream gets, the more room there is for an undercurrent,” he said. “Local agriculture means we’ve taken back control from a system that, really, has almost disallowed organic to come into a marketplace or that ships things in ways that just don’t suit.”

A focus on local is bringing new life to farmers markets across the country, Forti said, turning them into new community centers that can nourish body, mind and spirit.

“We know we’re supporting something that’s building better opportunities for our communities, for young farmers, but also for our regional environment,” he said.

For parents who want to get their younger kids into gardening and foraging, Forti suggests helping them spend less time on technology and more time in nature.

“Any of us that were ever touched by someone introducing us to gardening when we were young know that it’s better than any virtual reality,” he said. “To eat the fruits of your own labors, to go out picking blueberries -- these are wonderful opportunities.”

Taking kids into nature and into gardens can teach them life skills, even if they don’t appreciate it at first, Forti said, which is why he advocates for school and community gardens with plants that encourage kids to interact with what’s growing there, like popcorn. And parents can make this difference in their own lives.

“Any kid can be engaged in this process, but sometimes, it’s the parent as well who’s addicted to their phone and addicted to technology, so I think it’s a great challenge for all of us to build some of these systems together,” he said.